Prepared for the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce by Nathan Douthit (June, 2001)
Coos Bay, Oregon's largest coastal estuary and shipping port, together with its surrounding coastal range forest lands and tributary streams, has provided human beings with a place to live and work for thousands of years. The ancestors of today's local Indian tribes--the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, and the Coquille Indians--lived here long before Europeans landed on the eastern shore of North America. The Coquille Tribe, as owner of the Mill Casino on Coos Bay, is today one of the region's largest employers.
Although Spanish and English ships sailed along the Oregon coast as far back as the 16th century, Hudson's Bay Company fur traders were the first Europeans to reach Oregon's south coast and Coos Bay in the 1820s. After early settlement of the Willamette Valley by white Americans in the 1840s, and the California gold rush in 1849, a small group of Americans reached Coos Bay in 1853, and established the first town of Empire City, which is now part of the city of Coos Bay. The lumberman and shipbuilder Asa Meade Simpson established the mill and shipbuilding town of North Bend in 1856.
The pioneer period on Coos Bay lasted for about another half century. The first sawmills and shipyards were built in the 1850s. Coal mining began with the first settlers who came in 1853. By the late 1850s and 1860s farmers settled along the Coos and Coquille Rivers. A war between whites and Indians that engulfed all of southern Oregon from the Umpqua River south to the California border in 1855-56 led to the defeat of Indian people and their forced relocation onto Indian reservations on the north coast of Oregon. From the beginning of white settlement the Coos Bay region was tied into a coastal market for lumber, coal, salmon, and agricultural products centered on San Francisco and Portland. From the 1890s to 1920 the Coos Bay region's economy shifted from a mixed economy to one centered more on forest industrial production and large-scale coal mining. Agriculture became more specialized with dairy farming becoming the chief producer. During World War I there was a temporary expansion of wooden shipbuilding, but it proved to be the last days for this industry. The single most important event was the opening of the C. A. Smith Lumber Company mill on Coos Bay in 1908. This was the largest and most advanced mill on the Pacific Coast at the time. From the 1890s, federal funding of bar and harbor improvements helped make Coos Bay an ideal lumber shipping port.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the coal mining industry collapsed because of the introduction of fuel oil. Shipbuilding on Coos Bay also declined. But new technology in forest industry led to the construction of veneer, pulp and paper, and plywood mills throughout the region. In the 1920s road building created a new transportation network. People were no longer dependent on riverboat transportation. As of 1916 the railroad competed with coastal steamers to transport people in and out of the region. But in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, federal and state government funded coastal highway and bridge building. After 1936, Coos Bay was linked to the Willamette Valley and the rest of the Oregon coast by automobile transportation.After 1945 Weyerhaeuser Timber Company and Menasha Woodenware Company built manufacturing plants on Coos Bay. The region launched into a new era of stepped up forest industrial production. The peak year of employment in forest industry came in 1960-61. But a steep decline in forest industry employment, and closure of manufacturing plants, did not come until the 1980s. In the years 1981-83, some 2,000 timber industry jobs disappeared in Coos County. The decline in forest industry continued through the 1990s.
In view of recent developments in the forest industry, it is surprising to find that the population of Coos County has declined only slightly since 1980, when its population was 64,047. In a market analysis for the Coos Country Historical Society completed in the year 2000, Dean Runyan Associates reported:
"In 1999, according to the Center for Population Research and Census of Portland State University, Coos County had just over 61,000 residents. About a quarter, or just over 15,000 of these residents, live in Coos Bay, the largest city on the Oregon Coast. Despite significant job losses in the forest products industry, the population of Coos County has remained fairly stable over the last decade. Since 1990, the County's population has grown slowly by about 1,100 persons or about 1.8%, and steady growth is expected to continue through 2010. All of the population growth since 1990 has occurred because people have been moving to the area. Statewide, about 70 percent of population growth since 1990 has come from people moving into the state."
The city of Coos Bay used to be called Marshfield, and there is still Marshfield High School. But the city changed its name in 1944. Marshfield expanded after the turn of the century. A major fire on Front Street in 1922 led to the relocation of the city hall on Central Avenue. The area between the waterfront and 4th Street and two blocks on either side of Central Avenue became the center of the new Marshfield, and what is now considered to be the city of Coos Bay's "Old Town."
In A Guide to Oregon South Coast History (1999), I have described recent developments in the twin cities of Coos Bay-North Bend as follows. In the mid-1990s, three blocks of pedestrian mall in downtown Coos Bay, created in the late 1960s, was reopened to traffic. Covered walkways to protect pedestrians from rain were torn down to open sidewalks and streets to sunlight. The covered mall experiment turned out to be a failure. It did not recapture business from newly built shopping malls, and the covered sidewalks kept out sunshine as well as rain. But while this aspect of urban renewal was reversed, a waterfront boardwalk became a reality, offering tourists access to a walking view of the bay.
In other parts of the four block square old downtown area, many buildings were removed to make way for parking lots and a scattering of new professional office buildings. A new city hall was built to replace one built in the 1920s; in 1998 the "new" city hall of the 1920s housed a restaurant, dancing ballroom, and office spaces. An historic Elks Club Building was restored and remodeled into a bank headquarters. An old bank building was turned into a brewery. A 1930s post office building became an art museum.
Away from the old downtown center of the city of Coos Bay, four new shopping centers appeared in the 1970s to 1990s, anchored by Albertsons, Bi-Mart, K-Mart, Fred Meyer, Safeway, and Wal-Mart outlets. A publicly financed Bay Area Hospital, built in the 1970s, expanded. The Southwestern Oregon Community College campus built in the early 1960s added new classrooms, office spaces, playing fields, cafeteria, and dormitories in the 1980s and 1990s. The town of North Bend built a new public library, and Coos Bay in the last two years has expanded its library facility.
In these and many other ways, the Coos Bay-North Bend landscape has been transformed. The two small cities, still administered separately, have grown together in the last thirty years. The old downtown areas of the twin-cities have been integrated into a larger pattern of multiple business centers linked by commercial streets and interspersed with old and new residential areas.
The urban landscape on the Coos Bay estuary retains some of the features of an older, coastal-frontier West, but it is has been continuously re-engineered to meet the changing needs of business, industry, government, and individuals. This makes the human landscape on Coos Bay historically interesting, as well as a good place to live.